Friday, July 01, 2005

Running Scared

Public Broadcasting must be running scared. According to this report in The New York Times, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is so concerned about its funding that it's preparing a television project "to impress Congressional patrons" that appears to violate PBS's own journalistic standards.

According to the "Public Broadcasting Service Editorial Standards and Policies", PBS holds its producers to three basic journalistic standards: fairness, accuracy, and objectivity. Of objectivity, the Editorial Standards state:

To begin with, journalists must enter into any inquiry with an open mind, not with the intent to present a predetermined point of view.

The CPB's $20-million project "America at a Crossroads" will include a film by Brian Lapping about Richard Perle, a prominent neoconservative proponent of the Bush Doctrine and one of the driving forces behind the war in Iraq. Lapping's "very longstanding friendship" with Perle dates back to the 1960's, and there's no doubt at CPB what form his film will take:

[CPB senior VP for TV programming Michael] Pack said that the Perle film will make the case at length for an assertive United States foreign policy . . .

In fact, CPB was so sure that Lapping's film will violate the objectivity standard that it solicited proposals for another film with a "predetermined point of view": this time, a view critical of White House policy. The countervailing film will be produced by Frontline producer Sherry Jones, and, in the words of a CPB press release, will examine "how the implementation of the so-called Bush doctrine has alienated traditional American allies, tarnished America's image abroad and possibly made the world more dangerous."

Is this a case of two wrongs possibly making a right? I'm skeptical. The idea that truth will emerge from a clash of adversaries has a long history, most notably in the U.S. adversarial system of criminal justice. But it's often not true, as the Innocence Project has amply demonstrated. Sometimes the only things that emerge from such a clash are noise and heat. In the cases of at least 159 wrongly convicted prisoners exonerated by the Innocence Project, the truth had to wait for objective evidence examined impartially.

In today's media climate of "red facts" and "blue facts", it's easy to forget that some things are simply facts. For example, it's a fact that "the so-called Bush doctrine has alienated traditional American allies [and] tarnished America's image abroad". You can argue over whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, but the basic truth of the statement is not in doubt.

PBS's Editorial Standards warn producers against "camouflaging straightforward facts", which is considered a violation of the fairness standard. Yet by casting Jones's film as an ideological counterweight to Lapping's, CPB has implicitly camouflaged any factual content it may end up containing by removing it from the "facts" bucket and dropping it into the "blue facts" bucket, where "red" viewers are free to ignore or discount it. Just as "blue" viewers will discount what they see in Lapping's film about Perle.

Viewers not already committed to a color may be tempted to see the films as defining opposite ends of a spectrum, where the truth likely lies somewhere near the middle. Fred Clark at Slacktivist discusses this phenomenon from the opposite point of view, decrying the fallacy of justifying one's opinion by the fact that it's centrally located between extremes. But his quote from Patrick Nielsen Hayden applies here too: "Justice isn't a function of averaging." Neither is truth.

Objectivity is not easy to achieve, but that's no reason for throwing up our hands. The pursuit of fairness, accuracy and objectivity is the foundation of journalism and we'll all be worse off if we abandon it.